I have suffered with a systemic illness for thirty years. It is called Ankylosing Spondylitis. To make it easier for those who are rude about it, I say it is Rheumatoid Arthritis.
As a child on a gymnastics team, many teased that I should join the circus as a contortionist. I was the winner of many flexibility contests, and was constantly cartwheeling instead of walking. To lose those abilities came as a shock. It was not only extremely painful when the inflammation of my spine and ligaments occurred, it was frightening. I retained much of the flexibility in my shoulders and hamstrings, but my neck, ribs, and spine were indescribably sore. No longer a gymnast, I had switched to ballet before I started high school. To be a dancer and go through a long, undiagnosed illness was less than ideal, but I was lucky to have been so active in a field that demanded good posture. Many with this illness end up permanently stooped over..
When I was 35, I took a job teaching ballet in Virginia. I had no doubts about my teaching ability, I had been trained by more than one teacher who used a cane. For this reason, and the fact that most people would react to my unmoving spine with sympathy, I was doubly surprised to end up being bullied for having such a condition. Idiocy!!
I don’t mind jokes, for instance, on days I could hardly turn my head, there were always one or two dancers who made light of it in a funny way. I remind them that none of us is guaranteed good health, and to enjoy every moment of their physical well-being. Some jokes are to be expected when you are a teacher, it happens to everyone. The group I mostly worked with were sixteen to twenty years of age. Gorgeous, effervescent, and delightful.
The small company of dancers between 22 and 35 years of age turned out to be the bitterest and most insulting. It was a surprise to me that this culture of negativity existed and thrived. They lacked ambition, yet bemoaned being trapped with one another. I had never met so many unsmiling dancers, they hated the daily ballet class, and rolled their eyes at one another. As ballet is a visual art, most dancers learn to hide their pain or unhappiness, it is not what the audience, (or anyone) wants to see.
Most of my instructors didn’t make an announcement about why they had a cane, or what ailments they had, which is why I didn’t go in to class, sit them down, and go into great detail about my life. My job was to teach class, period.
A young man from Russia decided to give me a hard time, he asked a few questions about what kind of injury I suffered. When I gave him an explanation he said “That doesn’t make sense, are you making that up?” Having been arthritic for many years, I had become quite dismissive of those who felt best when belittling others. He was not the only one who behaved this way. There was a young woman who had recently been diagnosed with a chronic illness, and she suffered from Raynaud’s syndrome which turned her hands blue. I listened to rude, condescending jokes about her and felt like I would cry. Hoping to show my support, I commiserated with her, explaining I also was diagnosed at an early age with an autoimmune disorder. When I said Ankylosing Spondylitis, she looked at me and said “None of us have ever heard of that, are you sure that’s a thing?”
Sometimes, when dealing with ignorance, I have an easy time letting it go. I didn’t particularly care what they thought about me, I was just there to teach a good class. Thankfully, talking is looked down upon in the ballet studio.